NEW writers won’t let you Surrender Your Sons

Adam Sass’s short story, “98% Graves,” appeared in the third book in The NEW Series, Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond (2016). Christopher Calix’s short story, “The Wedding Gift,” appeared in the fourth book in the NEW Series, First Came Fear: New Tales of Horror (2018). Both “98% Graves” and “The Wedding Gift” are genre-specific stories rooted in social issues. While Adam’s story tackles society’s obsession with living through technology via a virtual reality, sci-fi bend, Christopher’s story tackles issues surrounding racism and intolerance through a zombie-horror lens.

Adam’s debut novel, Surrender Your Sons, (published September 2020 by Flux – North Star Editions), continues the author’s passion for social issues. The book takes a hard look at gay conversation therapy and exposes the sinister truth behind religious fundamentalism and homophobia in an island-set adventure-mystery.

The two authors sat down to discuss the challenge of writing heavy topics, changing the minds of conversion therapy believers, and combining humor and social justice in books and on Twitter.

CC: Surrender Your Sons is a fast-paced mystery but also tackles the grim reality of gay conversion therapy. How did you find the balance between exploring such a dark and serious topic with a fun and suspenseful narrative?

AS: Carefully. You never want to cheapen the topic or make it seem like it’s not that bad, but I also didn’t want this to be so relentless that readers would dread picking the book up. We’ve been through four years of the worst news; the last thing I wanted to do was deliver more bad news. I also think it made sense for the reality of these kids: some queers process traumatic events with humor; it’s a defense mechanism as old as time, so it was natural for them to be cracking wise while the worst things imaginable were happening around them.

CC: This balance can also be seen in your Twitter feed. You mix pop culture and social justice with the right amount of levity. We see it in your short story, “98% Graves,” and in  Surrender Your Sons, of course. How have you managed to perfect this balance in both your writing and in your tweets?

AS: It’s a struggle, but I try to trust my internal compass. In general, my point of view on the world is that of humor and heart in balance. Can’t have one without the other. So that POV is reflected in pretty much everything I do, whether it’s a book or a tweet.

CC: There is definitely humor and heart in Surrender Your Sons, which is a YA book that tackles some very grim and serious real-world problems like religion, homophobia, and conversion therapy. How do you handle writing about these issues for a younger audience?

AS: Young people know all about the horrors of the world. They deal with active shooter drills in school. They experience or witness queerphobia and transphobia. They see the awful news their parents watch. Some of them may even be in extreme religious homes where they encounter this stuff. They’re not immune to it because they’re young. In fact, they’re more vulnerable to it because adults tend to have the privilege of shutting this out. Young people are in whatever home they’re in, so my role was to tell this story as honestly as possible and make sure that I showed these teens getting no help from an older advocate. They had to get themselves out of this. I wanted to show them they could do it.

CC: This notion of solving the problem on your own really comes through in the book. While terrible things happen to Connor and his friends, there is a feeling of hope in the novel, too. What do you want young readers to take away from the book?

AS: That the kind of life a queer person can live is endless. Nearly every principal character in Surrender Your Sons is queer. I want young readers to see happy endings, sad endings, different ways of living, because I don’t want them thinking there’s only one way to be queer—or if something bad happens to a queer person, that doesn’t mean it’s their destiny too.

CC: Something that also comes through in the book is that your antagonists, while horrible, also elicit sympathy in the story. Was it important to you to instill the villains with humanity?

AS: Very important, but it was just as important to not forgive or excuse them. That’s a trend I’m seeing a lot lately across all media—the villain who’s so sympathetic that they can hardly even be called a villain at all. These are people doing evil deeds. Some lash out because they feel broken or powerless. Some just like hurting people. But they always had to be unequivocally wrong, dangerous, scary, and unstoppable.

CC: While we are on the topic, as a horror writer, I could see elements of the genre in Surrender Your Sons. Have any works of horror influenced your craft?

AS: Horror has been one of the most important influences! Horror can be very campy, grand, and sometimes darkly humorous, which makes for a genre that’s very appealing to queer people; and it works through heavy issues in a thrilling, exciting way. I love the feeling of doom that permeates some of the best horror, like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist. Just people living their lives until horror interrupts it like it’s inevitable. Also, I marry humor with horror, so I must honor the daddy of that, An American Werewolf In London.

CC: A true classic! This type of humor mixes well with the horror genre. But you also make it work within your dystopian fiction. “98% Graves,” captures this blend of dystopia, humor, and popular culture really well. Do you see Surrender Your Sons as sharing a slightly dystopian feel with that story?

AS: When I started writing Surrender, The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner were very in fashion, so there was a dystopian feel that seeped in. It takes place in the real world, but Connor is sent to this strange, alien colony on an island that gives him a huge culture shock. Rebellion is another dystopian theme that runs hard through this story.

CC: With so many heavy issues being tackled in both your writing and on your Twitter, what do you do to escape and recharge?

AS: Long walks with music or, better yet, getting out into nature whenever possible. Nature trails are perfect. Creative types recharge best with activity or nature because when you’re reading or watching a movie, your brain is still “working.”

CC: Speaking of working, there are several twists and turns in the book. What is your writing process like for a book with such an intricate plot?

AS: There are over forty chapters in this book and every one of them ends with a cliffhanger. Once I had my whole story plotted out broadly and thought about what I really wanted to say, I broke everything up into multiple cliffhangers and clue reveals. Perfectly timing these reveals was very important to me. The first season of Lost did this impeccably—not rushing it, but not stalling—so I studied that a bit.

CC: It’s not surprising to hear your studied Lost as Surrender Your Sons references Lord of the Flies and Jurassic Park at different times. These works all sit in a certain literary/filmatic space. Were there any other works that influenced you in writing this novel?

AS: Tarantino’s revenge pics, like Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill. Surrender Your Sons started by me wanting to do my own wisecracking, fast-paced revenge extravaganza, but for queer folks!

Adam Sass

CC: That sounds completely awesome! Now that we know the director who inspired you, which YA authors have inspired you in the past, as well?

AS: Caleb Roehrig, for his queer boy murder mysteries. Becky Albertalli, for making gay YA mainstream. Ryan La Sala, for his fearlessness with self-promo. Aiden Thomas, for maintaining such a fun, sparkly presence in a grim debut year!

CC: Can you tell us how you decided to take this idea for a “fast-paced revenge extravaganza…for queer folks” and apply it to a story about gay conversion therapy?  

AS: Surrender Your Sons began with a documentary called Kidnapped for Christ, about a real-life conversion camp in the Dominican Republic. It’s now closed, but because it was a documentary, it obviously didn’t end with the campers rebelling and taking the whole place down. It ended in a quiet, bittersweet, and lengthy way. So I thought we needed to see a revolution.

CC: We absolutely do. Unfortunately, not all states have made conversion therapy illegal. If you could impart one message from the book to believers in gay conversion therapy, what would it be?

AS: For straight cis people, that conversion therapy doesn’t necessarily mean a camp or facility like the one in my book; conversion therapy can be anywhere; it can be in a parent using their love as leverage to control their child’s behavior. Conversion therapy, I say in the book, isn’t about making someone straight, it’s about control. For queer people, that it requires constant vigilance to stay on top of these so-called therapies. In Surrender Your Sons, there’s a sense that this is an evil that can never die and must always be fought. So have fun, but never believe it’s gone for good.

CC: The book ends with the possibility of the story continuing. What is next for you, writing-wise? Should we expect a sequel?

AS: Without giving too much away, a sequel is entirely possible, although there are no current plans for one. I’m currently writing a romantic comedy! Really shaking the Etch-a-Sketch and doing something totally 180 from the dark, twisted world of Surrender Your Sons.

Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass is available now.

Adam Sass

Adam Sass began writing books in Sharpie on the backs of Starbucks pastry bags. (He’s sorry it distracted him from making your latte.) Though he was raised in an Illinois farm town, his desire for a creative career took him to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and currently, North Carolina, where he lives with his husband and dachshunds. When he’s not dropping hot takes on Twitter, Adam is a recurring co-host on the popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer podcast Slayerfest98. Surrender Your Sons is his first novel.

Christopher Calix

Christopher Calix’s debut novel, Dead Celebrities, was published in 2016 by Lethe Press. He received his MA in Literature from San Francisco State University.